Power to the people 3: Malaysia

Asia's dream machine

Posted: 3 November 2000

Author: Maya Pastakia

One of the urgent challenges facing many Asian cities is that of pollution fuelled by ever-growing traffic. Now, a British high-tech company has designed a clean, electric, solar-powered people carrier that could help solve the problem. Maya Pastakia reports.

Taking a ride in a conventional autorickshaw is not for the faint-hearted. Their ancient two-stroke Lambretta engines, which run on a mix of petrol and oil, belch out enormous amounts of smoke. That, combined with badly maintained engines means even more pollution. The solution according to Frazer-Nash lies in microchips and the sun. This former sports car manufacturing company is convinced that the future of transportation lies in non-polluting vehicles and a team of engineers and designers have been put together to prove the point by cleaning up the rickshaw. The new vehicle, named the Solar Baby, is their brainchild.

In 1994, the Frazer-Nash team came up with the prototype of a solar-battery vehicle as a modern replacement for the petrol-driven rickshaw. It cleverly saves on energy by doing away with a mechanical differential. Each wheel is powered by a separate motor placed on each corner behind the wheel. At the centre and base of the car is a box of electronics the brain of the vehicle which controls the power fed to each wheel.

Solar Babies line up© Frazer-Nash

When driving straight ahead power is fed equally to all four wheels but turning a corner produces a huge power saving. The electronic controller will notice that the outside wheels need more current than the inside wheels and will deliver equal torque at differential speeds automatically. This delivers a big saving in power consumption compared to the traditional mechanical differential gearbox.

Energy is also saved in braking. With conventional vehicles, every time the driver brakes energy is wasted in heating the brakes. With Solar Baby, when the brake is applied the motors are switched to become dynamos, turning kinetic energy into electrical energy which charges the battery as the vehicle slows down.

As well as these energy-saving features, the designers have tapped into the sun's energy. The solar panelled roof converts radiation from the sun into electrical energy providing a trickle of power all day long to the battery pack, giving the rickshaw around 15 km extra free range each day.

If the battery does need recharging, it's just a matter of plugging it into a power socket. With rapid-recharging batteries installed, the procedure takes less than an hour and costs about 85 pence (us$1.40) A single charge can provide over 113 kms (70 miles), as well as the extra 15 kms free from the solar panel.

Driving is a breeze. The Solar Baby is very responsive and has simple controls: a forward and reverse gear and two pedals one to go and one to brake. It has a top speed of 70 kph (45 mph). The stability of the vehicle is good because the majority of the weight of the vehicle is in the batteries underneath the floor, so the centre of gravity is low allowing for good handling.

One of the most outstanding features of the vehicle is its energy efficiency. While the efficiency of standard vehicles runs at around 20 per cent, Solar Baby scores an impressive 95 per cent. Not only that, the running costs of the vehicle are only one-fifth of a petrol car and costs one penny per mile.

In addition to these benefits, there is very low maintenance. There is no need to regularly change the oil and filters and there are no cooling or exhaust systems as in standard cars. Even the brakes wear less because of the electronic braking.

Like the design, the manufacturing process is also efficient. While Frazer-Nash supplies the controllers, the bodywork and mechanics are made in Malaysia. Already, the Malaysian company POEM employs around 100 staff producing Solar Babies using very simple technology. The fibreglass body panels are fabricated using moulds which just takes one man and a brush, so that production can easily be scaled up.

The newly-designed vehicles were test-driven in Malaysia last year at the Commonwealth Games, ferrying athletes and delegates around the Games Village, and have proved to be a success. So impressed by the design is the Malaysian Government that it is backing production of Solar Babies.

For the moment, the battery-solar rickshaws are being introduced onto the road as five-seater taxis maintained by fleet operators. Soon the Solar Baby will be available to individual users. Larger battery-solar rickshaws and cars will follow.

With its chic look, sleek lines and energy-saving features, the Solar Baby looks like a winner. Many cities close to the equator have pollution problems and the market for these vehicles is huge. Frazer-Nash hopes to introduce the vehicle into Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore before long. The new-style rickshaw may soon be a common sight all over Asia.

For information on the Solar Baby and other electric vehicles, contact: Frazer-Nash Research Ltd, Mytchett Place, Mytchett, Surrey GU16 6DQ, UK. Tel:+44 (0)1252 520000 Fax:+44 (0)1252 515 401 Email: marketing@frazer-nash.com">

Nile Turbines

A turbine powered by the current in the River Nile has successfully replaced diesel-power pumps to supply drinking water to 5,000 displaced people in Juba, the major city in southern Sudan.Nile Turbine© CADDETT Renewable EnergyThe Garman water current turbine floats on a pontoon in the river with the rotor completely submerged, moored to a post on one bank.

Output from the pump flows through a 750m long pipeline to a tank 10m above the mean river level, holding 45,000 litres. From this tank, the water passes through a sand filter and from there into a smaller holding tank, feeding a pipe and tap system. At the lowest river level, the turbine delivers 2 litres/second to the filtration tank.

A French NGO, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), has been working since 1985 in Juba, which is still affected by the civil war, and the provision of safe drinking is a major part of its work. Originally, diesel-powered pumps were used, but the supply of diesel fuel was a continual problem. The original turbine has been running reliably for over two years. Recently, a second machine was added, in series, so that water can also be pumped to another tank higher up the hill.

A persistent problem has been the large quantities of water hyacinth which collect around the pontoon, eventually stopping the rotor. This problem has been reduced by moving the turbine slightly out of the main current. Major advantages of the system are the freedom from recurrent expenditure on fuel, and the supply of cleaner water because the inlet to the pump is in the mainstream of the river.

Contact: CADDET Centre for Renewable Energy, ETSU, Harwell, Oxfordshire OX11 0RA, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1235 432719, Fax: +44 (0)1235 433595, Email: Email: caddet.renew@aeat.co.uk